The essential guide to FESTIVAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Strutting singers, pounding axe-men and dancing revellers all present an alluring spectacle for the aspiring music photographer, but how do you approach your first live music event? James Paterson is your gig guide...
Music photography is a bit of a paradox. For the performer, it’s all about giving the gift of music to the crowd. But for the photographer, the music is secondary. We’re interested in the visual spectacle, not the aural one. For us it’s about capturing the personality of the performers, the interaction with the crowd, and the atmosphere of the setting. As such, it helps if the act puts on a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
Shooting a gig, festival or any kind of music performance for the first time can be a little intimidating, and not just because of the pressure to get good shots. There may be seasoned pros there sporting all kinds of fancy kit, so an entrylevel D-SLR and a selection of budget lenses can leave the fledgling music photographer feeling a little inadequate. But there’s no need to get kit envy; great shots don’t necessarily rely on the best gear. You can achieve professional results with the minimum of kit, as long as you know what to look for and make good decisions on things like exposure, ISO and angle of view.
Documenting a gig or festival is a challenge for your gear, your stamina and your creativity. With difficult lighting conditions and fast-paced acts the perfect shot doesn’t happen by accident. Whether you’re shooting a large festival or an intimate gig in a bar, the fundamental camera skills are the same. Fast shutter speeds, precise autofocus and a basic understanding of exposure all play a part.
You may be able to get a press pass that gives you access to areas designated for photographers – contact the organisers beforehand to ask for one. It’ll help if you have a website with examples of your photography, or if you’re there on behalf of a print or digital publication. At smaller events organisers will often be willing to give you a pass in exchange for a few photos for their promotional material (tip: look online for organised events with very bad or amateur photos, as they’ll definitely be in need of better shots!).
At larger events there will often be an area between the stage and the crowd for security, and with the right pass photographers can get in too (although sometimes it’s just for the first three songs). It’s often the best place to be, as you’re close enough to the acts to get intimate shots and try out different angles, but you can just as easily turn your lens on the crowd. At larger gigs the stage will be raised, so it might be worth bringing along a small stepladder – or you can improvise and find something to stand on so that the acts don’t have the distorted look you get when shooting people from a low angle.
You might be lucky enough to gain access to the side of the stage, which
brings you up to eye level with the acts. This can help you to capture the event from their perspective, and allows for shots of the band and crowd together in the frame. On some stages you might even be able to get right behind the acts, so that you can compose a shot of the singer with the crowd behind, conveying a sense of what it’s like to be up there in front of so many people. However, it’s not all about exclusive access. It’s worth getting stuck in with the crowd too, as there will be lots of opportunities to capture their reaction and the atmosphere of the event – and here, rather than off-stage, is where performers will be directing their attention.
The lead singer
Like all sub-genres of portrait photography, the success of a music portrait lies in large part with the pose, expression and character of the subject. A strutting frontman or woman should give you a great selection of poses. When the magic happens, be ready for it and shoot in Continuous High drive mode to ensure you have your pick of shots. Beware the microphone and its stand, though. Mics, and the shadows they cast, present one of the biggest challenges for the gig photographer. Try to capture a singer as they pull away from the mic, or in instrumental breaks; this can lead to better expressions too, as faces can look a little strained mid-scream.
A sense of move ment
From the energetic singer to the pounding drummer to the buzzing crowd, there’s so much movement going on at a gig. This presents a conundrum, as we ideally want to convey that sense of movement in the images, but also to freeze the action to keep the subject sharp. So keep an eye out for things that will suggest movement, such as long hair frozen mid-headbang, athletic dance moves, or guitarists strumming or leaping. If you’re allowed to use flash at the gig (check beforehand) then you could also try using a little slow sync flash. The burst of the flash will freeze the action, while a slow shutter speed of around 1/10 sec will blur movement for an evocative mix of sharp and soft action.
Shoot the DJ
DJs are very good at getting the crowd going, but a subject hunched over a laptop or decks doesn’t offer many opportunities for great poses. Instead,
look for the moments when they address the crowd, punch the air or pull a pose.
To compensate for the lack of visual fireworks in the act, DJs are often accompanied by amazing light displays, lasers and smoke machines, so you could focus your attention on the patterns and colours of the lights. Pay particular attention to your exposure when shooting light displays. Your metering will often be way off as there will be large areas of darkness in the frame, and the meter may try to average those areas out as grey. The good thing about artificial lighting is that it’s usually consistent, so the best approach is often to go completely manual, take a few test shots to work out a good exposure for the lights, then shoot away, safe in the knowledge that the light levels will be unlikely to change.
SHUTT ER SPEED & ISO
You’ll often be shooting at the limits of your camera and lens’s low-light capability. Shutter speed is always going to be the limiting factor in the exposure when you’re photographing musicians, unless they’re posing for you, and on top of this you’ll usually be hand-holding, as tripods are generally a no-no. When handholding, your shutter speed should ideally be at least equal to the focal length of the lens (so for a 100mm lens you’d need 1/100 sec). But if a subject is dancing or moving fast, you’ll need to push the shutter speed up to 1/200 sec or faster. To allow for such fast shutter speeds you’ll have to increase the ISO. The good news is that modern D-SLR sensors are getting better and better at high ISOs. Gone are the days when ISO1600 meant a noisy mess – we can usually push the ISO up to 6400 or beyond and still capture high-quality, detail-rich shots.
When slower shutter speeds are out of the question, lenses with a wide and constant maximum aperture really show their worth. A high-performance zoom lens, like the Nikon 24-70mm with its constant maximum aperture of f/2.8, is ideal. The wide aperture will make it easier to shoot in dim interiors, and a standard zoom range will enable you to quickly zoom in to the action, or out to capture a broader view. However, fast zooms can be expensive, so if you’re on a budget it might be worth considering a prime lens like a 50mm f/1.8 instead. Although limited to that focal length, a 50mm is a superb low-light performer. The difference in maximum aperture between a typical standard zoom kit lens which opens up to f/5.6 (at, say, 55mm) and a 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 may not seem that much when you look at the numbers, but it’s three-and-a-third stops faster. In terms of shutter speed, it means that if the kit lens can only achieve a correct exposure with a shutter speed of 1/15 sec, the f/1.8 will give you a much more usable 1/160 sec – that’s the difference between a sharp subject and a blurry mess.
when slowe r shutter spee ds are out of the question, lenses that have a wide and constant maximum aperture really show their worth
Shooting wide open will leave you with a very limited depth of field. This, coupled with the fact that the acts will be moving around in low light, presents a challenge for your autofocus. Of the two focusing modes, Continuous AF is usually the better choice, as it means the autofocus will track the subject movement as long as you keep it engaged (as opposed to Single AF, which will lock on once, then stop). It’s also worth thinking about the method for triggering the autofocus. Many band photographers choose to use their back AF button for focusing rather than the shutter button (you can set this up in your D-SLR’s custom menu). This enables you to keep focusing separate from the act of taking the photo, so your thumb triggers the focus and your forefinger takes the shot. Used in conjunction with Continuous AF mode, it means you can hold the back button with your thumb to continually track the motion of the subject, then press the shutter button when something spectacular happens. The same method works well for all kinds of portraits.
You also have two choices when it comes to your point of focus. The first option is to manually move your focus point around the grid in your viewfinder so it sits over the part of the frame occupied by the subject. But while this is the most precise method, it’s often not the fastest. Many photographers favour the ‘focus and recompose method’, where you use the central focus point. The idea is that you use this point to autofocus on your subject, then once they’re in focus you recompose the shot in whatever way you choose. Again, when used in combination with back button focusing, this means you can react quickly and lock the focus before shooting. Be aware that the act of recomposing the shot after focusing can sometimes throw the focus plane off slightly – although at the kind of distances you’ll usually be shooting for music performances the discrepancy is negligible, so there’s little danger of ending up with a soft subject.
RA W safe ty net
Shooting RAW will give you a safety net for things like exposure and white balance. In the middle of the action with challenging lighting conditions, precise exposure metering can be tricky. RAW files boast a greater dynamic range than JPEGs, so if something is under- or overexposed it’s easier to recover lost detail at the extremes of the tonal range. With artificial lighting of all colours to contend with, a correct white balance can also be hard to set on the spot, but shooting RAW gives you the option to change the white balance post-shoot, something you can’t do with JPEGs.
Gaining access to the photography pit will enable
you to get those allimportant close-up shots
A zoom lens with a wide and constant maximum aperture will enable fast enough shutter
speeds to freeze the action
Shooting RAW will enable you to correct colours captured under tricky lighting
Turn forget to turn around now and again to get some audience reaction shots